Friday, December 30, 2011

The Eroticism in Art

Eroticism in Art

“Venus of Urbino” Titian (1538) 

The term erotic is derived from Eros (Greek god of sexual love and beauty) and applied to art with human sexuality. The historic imagery of erotic art is explicit and implicit with human sexual behaviors, sometimes looked upon negatively because of codes and censorship. Sexual desire is a part of human nature, but ethical limits are imposed by society as we are regulated by sexual behavior. Human sexuality is restricted by social customs.

“The experience of beauty, the sensuous and rational are equally involved but the discussion is an extremely abstract one and, despite the hint that beauty is a symbol of morality, no account is developed as to how art and beauty may be conducive to moral life” (Cooper 123).

Erotic images are among the earliest surviving indications of human culture in the Paleolithic period, and Neolithic period; the earliest representation of human copulation is a carved stone from Ain Sakri in the Judaean Desert. Egyptian myths are represented in many papyruses depicting copulating couples with exaggerated sexual organs, such as the Papyrus of Tameniu from the 21st Dynasty (1069-945 BC).

In Classical Greece and Rome, the love stories of the gods were vitally necessary, both as powerfully erotic stimulation and as the symbolic representation of fertility in nature. Sex and religion were closely interwoven in art objects, from lamps and vases to paintings and sculptures, showing explicit sexual activities. Zeus or Jupiter, is the divine hero of many Classical legends, and his amorous conquests are depicted in many Greek vases, Roman lamps and cameos. Especially popular was the story of Leda; wife of King Tyndarus of Sparta. Marble reliefs from the 2nd century AD show the nude body of Leda helping the swan to penetrate her, encouraged by a naked cupid.

Papyruses of Tameniu from the 21st Dynasty

The female nude seems to dominate erotic art in the West since men have executed most paintings. Rarely is the nude painted dispassionately, for by its nature, it arouses the senses. However, the power of this attraction has led these types of works to be feared in a Judeo-Christian civilization, and the resulting censorship of explicit sexuality in art has resulted in works whose eroticism is deliberately veiled and whose erotic power is thereby increased. Whereas other world religions have regarded sexual pleasure as an important part of worship and have treated the sexual adventures of gods and goddesses as sacred texts, Christianity is a nonsexual religion. Since the Church was the main patron of the arts in the West until the 18th century, this process had a profound impact on painting and sculpture.

The new humanism of the Renaissance in Italy during the 15th century, with its revival of interest in the world of classical antiquity, led to dramatic changes in the progress of the arts. Religious subject matter is predominant in the art of the period, but erotic themes or undertones are often present. Certain Old Testament stories were ideal for erotic treatment. One of the most erotically powerful stories is the story of Judith, who seduces the enemy commander Holofernes and then cuts off his head during his recovery from the physical exertions of intercourse; this story was painted by Mantegna, Giorgione and Titian, among others.

Leda and the Swan was also painted by Titian, Correggio, Bronzino, Lorenzo Di Credi and Perino del Vaga. Raphael executed a drawing of Leda after a famous painting by Leonardo of the nude princess standing in a flowery meadow embracing the swan. Michelangelo painted the nude Leda in 1529 with the swan between her legs after the act of intercourse, its neck between her breasts and its beak touching her lips. One wing flutters in the air while the princess sinks into her pillows in post-coital exhaustion. In the 17th-century, the painting was destroyed and is only known through copies and reproduction.

Leda and the Swan, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Veronese, Tintoretto, Titian, Cezanne.

The most notorious of Raphael’s erotic works are his History of Venus frescoes, executed in 1515 for
Cardinal Bibbiena’s bathroom in the Vatican. They were whitewashed over in the 19th century and are now in poor condition and forbidden to visitors.

The Fontainebleau school produced many scenes including “Two Court Ladies in the Bath” which is a nude portrait of Henry IV mistresses in the bath touching each other. I used this scene as a reference in my painting, “The Kiss” (2009). Using two Pop icons, Madonna and Britney Spears who famously kissed in front of a large TV audience shocking millions; the common thread and the link to my painting “The Kiss” is that both Madonna and Britney Spears are recognized mistresses of pop culture in our society.

Gabrielle d’Estrées and One of Her Sisters

The Baroque period includes many representations of swooning and ecstatic saints, suggesting repressed sexuality. The most famous example is perhaps Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s life-size marble sculpture of the Ecstasy of St Theresa. Bernini seems far more focused on the sensuality of the body in which the Saint appears to be in the throes of orgasm as she reclines beneath the beautiful young angel and his arrow, as visual metaphor for the divine penis. “Eroticism is assenting to life even in death” (Magritte 636).

The 18th century was not only the Age of Reason as Thomas Paine called but also the Age of Pleasure. French paintings of the period reflect the fun-loving atmosphere of court life; the joys of lovemaking were celebrated with official approval. The open celebration of sexuality in much of the 18th-century art found little parallel in the 19th century, which paradoxically proved to be a period more obsessed with sex than any before it.

Neoclassical art contained strong erotic images. The nudes painted by Ingres, such as the Valpinçon Bather and the Grande Odalisque, reveal an obsession with the sexual attraction of the female nude body.
 The Kiss, Henry Ballate. 2009

Toward the end of the 19th century, the association of sex with death became characteristic of artists associated with decadence and decline. One of their characteristic themes was that of woman as a mysterious goddess, using her sexuality to dominate men. The sexual hypocrisy that required so many artists to hide or suppress the eroticism in their work during the 19th century waned considerably during the 20th century, when a compulsive degree of self-revelation became characteristic in art.

In the early 20th century the diverse aspects of sexual experience had become the dominant theme. The Surrealists were aware of the revolutionary nature of free erotic expression, inspired by Freud’s argument that “sexuality lay at the root of all creativity, they explored on erotic feelings.” Thus Surrealist erotic art has a fascinating intensity that can have a strong effect on the viewer, communicating often on a direct level of the subconscious. Dreams and nightmares, personal fetishes and sexual games all play an important role in Surrealist erotic imagery. Rather than concentrate on genital organs, the Surrealists preferred to transform the whole body into an erotic arena for exciting experiences.

Soft Construction with Boiled Beans, Salvador Dali

By the second half of the 20th century there was a more sustained interest in erotic art. American artists have concentrated on the forbidden subject of the penis, including Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Brigid Polk and Andy Warhol. The photographer Robert Mapplethorpe set out to create images that would be artistically beautiful, but also erotically charged. “Man in a Polyester Suit” (1981) shows a black man seen only from chest to knee, with an enormous flaccid penis hanging out of the open zipper of his pants. One of the most controversial experiments in eroticism was the exhibition of work by Jeff Koons at the Venice Biennale in 1990. Koons’ series of life-size sculptures and enormous photo-screen prints were entitled “Made in Heaven” and depicted in explicit detail the artist and his wife, making love.

 Fingers Between Legs, Jeff Koons

The nude body is beauty in its purest form, and has been a subject used to express formulations about life; not only representing the body, but the relations of all structures that have become part of the imaginative experience. Without it, we would lose a large perspective of art history as it relates to human sexuality and moral judgment.

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